Relating, Creating, Transforming

Do You Know Your H2O?

John 4:5-15

ebooA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Dare to Understand Awards event. The featured speaker was Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. I have met with Eboo various times and consider him to be one of my mentors. He inspired me in 2007 when I met him for the first time and read his memoir, Acts of Faith. There was so much in his story that I resonated with and since then, I have been committed to the work of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Eboo, a Muslim, teaches in Seminaries and other religious schools, often encountering American Evangelical Christians, who tend to be the most skeptical or even fearful of people from other faith traditions—especially Muslims. And yet, this is the challenging and important work that Eboo does. He is not afraid to reach across lines of difference. He embraces the most difficult questions and faces the various conflicts.

Recently, Eboo has been focusing on the need for people of faith backgrounds to live out their faith more honestly and publicly. The reason for that is because today many of the most open-minded Christians are mostly silent about their own faith tradition, fearing that they will offend someone or sensing the practice of the Christian faith has nothing positive to offer Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular humanists, etc. For example, Cassie Meyer, who works with Eboo at Interfaith Youth Core, says that most Christians have been conditioned to think that there are two ways to engage people of other faiths.

Liberal Christians feel they need to let go of any unique identity and affirm all religions as the same. Call it religious relativism.

Conservative Christians do the opposite. They hold on even tighter to their beliefs and sometimes see other religions as the enemy. Call it fundamentalism.

In both cases, this way of seeing the world does not lead to understanding and cooperation.

But there is another way. What about religious pluralism?  Pluralism claims that we are a diverse culture, worldwide. We have different truth claims. The real question is: how can we live together while being our true selves? The answer, at least, for Jesus of Nazareth, is to encounter the other, the one who others say is untouchable or unreachable. Enter the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, though it is not often talked about, was one who did not shy away from engaging with diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic. He sought out those who were “untouchable” and on the margins. This is why he ended up in Samaria with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews like Jesus were not supposed to go to Samaria. Just consider that Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan, should not have met. The Jews believed their sacred temple was in Jerusalem and the Samaritans that their sacred site was on Mount Gerizim. They read different scriptures. They had competing truth claims about G-d. And yet, Jesus seeks her out and breaks the rules—only to offer her living water.

In this case, living water is a new identity. For the Samaritan woman, this was being fully human. She had been told that her life didn’t matter and that she was lesser. Jesus, though he was of another religious and cultural background, sought her out to tell her that her life did indeed matter, and that she was full of living water. This is the narrative the Gospels tell about this Jesus—that Jesus seeks people out who feel lost, broken, devalued, marginalized, and forgotten.

That story is good news for all of us.

And yet, within that narrative I also hear another one—that we live in a world in which certain people of certain cultural, political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds cannot meet; they cannot talk to each other. Those meetups are even banned by governments and the rich and powerful. And many of us are conditioned [or at least jaded enough] to start believing this narrative. Christians cannot meet up with Muslims; materially poor people cannot meet up with the materially wealthy; a 16-year-old from West Philly cannot be friends with a 16-year-old from Warrington; a gender-fluid person can never meet up with someone who has no idea about alternative pronouns or even what transgender means; Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians—they cannot meet up.

These types of meetup groups are prohibited and even impossible, so we are told.

Let me say that certainly for people who are marginalized or discriminated against, they have every right to be skeptical about such meetings. If as a transgender person you have been told more than once that your “new” pronouns aren’t real and even that your gender identification or expression is invalid or unnatural—well, you should not be subjected to that harsh treatment. If you’re Black in America and have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and tokenism on many occasions—you have every right to disengage from those who have treated you like this. If you are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jain and have been mistreated or misrepresented when you encountered Christians, you have every right to walk away from those encounters.

Let me be clear—just because there are nice stories about Jesus encountering and meeting marginalized people as they are and where they are does not mean that it’s easy and happens all the time in society. It doesn’t, and that’s the point. What Jesus did was radical, considered dangerous, and counter-culture. Also, Jesus was the one reaching out. He wasn’t the marginalized. He looked for and befriended those on the margins.

And that’s where the narrative can be beautiful and powerful. As a Christian [and as a human being] I have committed to befriending Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others from marginalized religious communities. It is up to me to do that. Likewise, I have made a commitment to be a friend and a student when I am with my LGBTQIA friends, colleagues, and family—to learn from them, because there is so much I do not know.

Friends, as people with H20 in our DNA, we can be water for each other in these encounters. We can make a positive social impact in society if those of us not on the margins seek out those on the margins and listen to their stories, honor and accept them, value their lives, and then join them on the journey. In life, you will encounter people who are worried, who carry way too heavy burdens, and they feel like their life doesn’t matter. You can decide to be water by being a listening ear, a helping hand, a ship out in the middle of the ocean, a glass of water in the middle of desert sand. There will be times when all of our own wells will run dry, and in those moments we will need someone to offer us a refreshing drink and to remind us that our life has value. Whether on the margin or not, water is in your physical and spiritual DNA. Let us be water for each other and refresh and heal the community.

John 3:9-17

Spiritdove.jpeg
Identity is theme of the 40 days of Lent. Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who are my neighbors? These identity questions should stay with Christians throughout this season, and lead to growth, connection, and cooperation. The Gospel stories of the New Testament give us an opportunity to ask these questions, and then to embrace a journey towards light and compassion. Though most of Lent we have been looking at Mathew’s Gospel, this time we take a detour and look at John’s Gospel, the last Gospel written, and the Gospel that stands alone much of the time, as it is very different from Matthew, Luke, and Mark.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is an intriguing one, and as our Lenten journey is about questions, so is this story. Now I’ve read and examined this story so much that sometimes I feel that there isn’t much left to explore. But for some reason, my reading of the story this time led me to a different take. You see, much of the time we tend to focus on the characters who encounter Jesus [like Nicodemus] as having some sort of problem, or as being in opposition to Jesus. But I don’t think this is the case with Nicodemus. He is a good question-asker, and Jesus loves questions. This type of question-asking was and is prevalent in many religious traditions, including Judaism and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student asks the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider.

So the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory.” He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice. The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.

The storyteller writes that Nicodemus met Jesus at night. My take on that is that Nicodemus had respect for Jesus. He didn’t wish to make a spectacle of the conversation; he preferred a one-on-one talk. We also must keep in mind that John’s Gospel often uses the light-dark symbolism. This could be one of those cases. Nicodemus came in the dark. He was about to meet the light.

The conversation started off reasonably well. Nicodemus showered Jesus with praise and respect. Jesus wasn’t all that interested, though. Instead, Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ perspective by saying something strange:

No one can see God’s presence without being born from above.

Born from above refers to the new vision for life that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples and led them towards, and is not a statement of belief or some superior knowledge.

Nicodemus was curious but confused, as anyone would be. After all, humans are physically born only once, right? But again, Jesus was pushing Nicodemus to think beyond narrow and linear categories. For Jesus, being born from above meant being born of water and spirit.

stillwater
Water. Probably the most essential resource in all of creation. We all need water to survive. But more than that—water is powerful and creative. It goes around, under, and through things. It carves mountains and forges new habitats. It brings life wherever it flows. Pause for a moment. How are we like water? How does that affect the way you see others?

wind
Spirit.
For Jesus of Nazareth, spirit and wind were interchangeable. The spirit/wind is wild—it blows where it wishes and cannot be controlled. You don’t even see it. It is free of and at large in the world. Pause for a moment. How are we like wind? How does that change the way you see others?

I simply want to focus on these two identity images of water and wind.

As we ask: who am I? during this season, how are we like water and like wind?

And, if we consider that the people around us are also born of water and wind, how will that affect the way we interact and treat others?

Are We Out of the Woods?

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

The 40 days of Lent, for Christians around the world, are an opportunity. Now I don’t know where you are in terms of Christian traditions or Lent. Maybe for you, Lent is a strange word that sounds like the small amount of fuzz in your pants pockets [i.e. lint] or the past tense of a word meaning to borrow. Some of you may have grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so Lent may remind you of giving something up, like candy, alcohol, or meat [on certain days]. I also know that many of you have no history with this thing called Lent whatsoever. So let’s focus on the number 40, shall we? And on the journey story of Jesus of Nazareth, which begins with a 40 day period of self-discovery.

And as a help in our own journey of self-discovery, allow me to introduce another story.

wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery. Her story was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed, at the age of 22, saw her mother die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Afterwards, her family was incredibly distant and disconnected and she began a path of self-destruction, leading to broken relationships and heroin addiction. Four years later, Strayed, with no hiking experience, set out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail that begins in the Mojave Desert and continues through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. Her story recounts Cheryl’s life before and after this hike, describing her physical challenges and spiritual realizations. Let’s watch the trailer:

Cheryl Strayed’s story is an appropriate one for us to look at during this season. It leads us to Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew. This 40 day journey of Jesus is told by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, though today we are focusing on Matthew’s version, and there are some differences that I need to point out.

First, Matthew’s author says that Spirit “takes Jesus up” into the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so no surprise that this version of the story makes two connections with Israel. The number 40 refers to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and the phrase “forty days and forty nights” refers to Moses in the book of Exodus who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.”  Further, Matthew’s story defines the character of “the tempter” in various ways, calling him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and even Beelzebul.

Speaking of the temptations. And no, not the Motown group, though they were AMAZING.

temptationsgroupThis is Jesus’ temptation experience and Matthew switches things up. First, Jesus is told to turn stones [plural] into loaves of bread. Then, Jesus is tempted at the pinnacle of the temple [order change], and lastly, Jesus is tempted up on a mountain [see earlier Exodus/Moses references]. The plural of stones and loaves is important because Matthew is making the point that if Jesus is who he says he is, why not feed the world? Why not use his magic power to do something like that? Jesus rebuffs the temptation by retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and waiting for food, and in that waiting and humility, they were finally able to be ready to receive the manna [bread] that Yahweh provided.

The second test is in Jesus exploiting his supposed religious power as God’s son. This is about the religious elite of Jesus’ day, and how they wielded power over the marginalized of society. Jesus, in Matthew’s story, again refers to Moses, this time to a story in which people were thirsty and Moses asked God to make water flow from a rock.

And lastly, when Jesus is up on a high mountain [so high that he not only sees the promised land but the whole cosmos], he is tempted by the question: who is the divine? Is Yahweh God? Is the tempter God? And it follows: how is Jesus really? That last question, of course, has been the crazy controversy of Christianity since probably around the 3-4th century.

The identity question within Jesus’ wilderness story is the point for us. Just like in the story of the Wild, someone is challenged to look deeply at who they are, facing temptations, anger, sadness, the past, and the present.

I will pretty much leave this here for now, because we need to take this journey appropriately—with patience and care. Self-examination /change/personal growth are not quick-fixes. This is more than just learning a new skill, giving up something, or practicing some sort of religious thing. This is a change not just in what you do but in who you are. Each step of your journey is important. And we all must start where we are. Doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or the state of your life currently. This is where you are. Just take the next step, whatever that is. Take the first step.

See the trail, the wilderness, the journey—as an opportunity. Embrace it. What would it be like for you to forgive yourself? What would it be like for you to embrace your own journey? What is your first step to change that will help to make you a healthier, balanced, and whole person?

 

Matthew 17:1-9

Change.

changeFactory
Does this word scare you? Make you shiver? Excite you? Heighten your anxiety? Give you hope? Motivate you? Change. How does this word make you feel?

It is not hyperbole to say that recently, in the United States, the word change for many does not have a positive connotation. A president addicted to the bully pulpit and one who consistently uses fear to distract and separate people does not help. Not all change is good, isn’t that true? Removing protections in public places for transgender people and for transgender students is not a good change. Requiring people to carry and show IDs randomly doesn’t feel like a good change either. Forcibly removing native peoples from Standing Rock, their own land, so an oil pipeline can be installed, is not a good change. Banning the majority of the press from presidential press conferences is a bad and dangerous change. Lawmakers skipping out on town hall meetings…not a good change. Detaining people in airports, like Muhammad Ali’s son, a U.S. citizen born here in Philly, asking him about his religion—a horrific change.

Fanning the flames of ignorant prejudice and hate crimes, not a good change. Rest in peace, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, engineer and family man of 32 years, shamelessly killed in a bar in Kansas by a white man who said: “Go back to your country” before he shot Srinivas and wounded two others.

srni

So no, not all change is good.

In my view, any change motivated by fear, prejudice, manipulation, or power is not a good change.

Call it disfiguration.

Change is good when it is progress, when it leads to positive transformation. Changing positively is allowing for a new reality and then advancing towards that which makes us better people.

Call it transfiguration.

The idea of transfiguration [in a spiritual sense for Christians and Jews] is based on the Exodus story of Moses and then the Matthew story of Jesus. In Matthew of the NT, Jesus and three disciples go up on a mountaintop for 6 days. In the OT book of Exodus, the prophet Moses also went up to a mountain [Mt. Sinai] for 6 days. The 7th day, in Jewish thought, is Sabbath, rest, the recharging of batteries, recreation and reinvention of self. Both Moses and Jesus do this for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. In Jesus’ case, on top of the mountain, he is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face in the Exodus story. The main difference is that Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They have trouble listening, though, and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But Jesus reassures them with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.” They look up. And then they come down from the mountain.

Day seven; the change begins.

This metaphorical story has relevance in this very moment, I think. It is not a stretch to say that our world is disfigured in so many ways. Why do we judge people by who they love, the color of their skin, their last name, their religion, where they were born or grew up, or which bathroom they choose?

This is sickness, not health.

This is disfigurement, not transformation. So those of us who actually do want to live in a world in which people are valued as they are, and diversity of all kinds is embraced, and affirmation and compassion rule the day—those of us wanting this reality, this change, we have to go up to the mountaintop.

So to speak.

We have to take the time to search ourselves, recharge our batteries, heal and rest. We have to take the time to reinvent, recreate, and transform ourselves. And then we come down from the mountain. Then we make change happen.

A big mistake I have made [and many of us] is to wish for positive change, talk about it, but then never do the necessary hard work to make it a reality. I’m done waiting for a change to come. I’m finished with wishing or hoping for all people to be treated well. I don’t want to wait for the seventh day to come so that light will break through. I want to be part of positive change now, in this moment. Today.

And so I remind myself [and I remind you] that real change is cyclic. In order to make lasting change, all of us will have to do that tedious and difficult mountaintop work of introspection, self-examination, and transformation. We will need to ask hard questions of ourselves. We will need to look in the mirror. This allows us to have the strength necessary to face the obstacles when we come down from the mountain. This gives us the wisdom to discern who we should join with and who we should part ways with.

The world is disfigured. We must face it and not ignore what is going on. But we must spend time and energy recreating and transforming as people, and then making positive changes happen. The approaching 40 days of Lent are an opportunity. How will you get to know yourself better? How will that work lead you to positive change within yourself? And then, how will that personal change lead you to make positive change happen in the world? See you on and off the mountain….

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

perfectionist
A dictionary definition: a perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait of a person who strives for flawlessness and sets excessively high performance standards, often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and deep concerns about how others evaluate. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable.

Are you a perfectionist? Do any of these phrases ring true for you?

There is no room for mistakes. You quickly race to correct them.
There is a very specific manner in which things should be done.
If something feels out of place it’s not acceptable.
It’s all or nothing—either you do something well, or not at all.
It is about the end result.
You are really hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Not achieving a goal makes you feel heavy.
You often ask: What if? After the fact.
Your standards are extremely high and you fear not being able to reach them.
Success is fine, but there is always another level to achieve.
You only start things when you feel ready.
You can spot mistakes a mile away when others are like: Huh?

You are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, and even well-being sometimes to achieve something in the way you deem right.

Do you relate to any of this? Personally, I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist in general, but I do relate to a few of these characteristics. So though I may not be a perfectionist in all areas of my life, in certain ways I am. I bring this up, because in Matthew’s Gospel we get a story about Jesus of Nazareth talking about perfectionism, or so it seems. On the surface, it actually seems even worse than the psychological perspective I just shared. Jesus seems to be saying that we as human beings must be as perfect as God.

As perfect as God? Hold the phone, Jeebus!

kermitjesus
No way that Jesus is encouraging us to be divinely perfect, right, because that would be, well, impossible and also depressing. Talk about a self-image downer….

But let’s take a look at the word perfect in English, a translation of the Greek word telos. Telos has nothing to do with being morally perfect [or free from mistakes]. Telos is about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity that is…like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit. Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in personal growth. This concept, restated by Jesus in Matthew, is referring to the perfection/growth of nature. The growth of trees and plants is perfectly balanced. And as we know from prior Jesus comments in Matthew, we as human beings are compared to things like salt, light, earth, clay, and animals. Being perfect, in this context, is about growth in our love, compassion, and wholeness. Like a tree, we are made to grow buds that eventually bear fruit. That is Divine perfection.

treefruitHow can we love perfectly? How can we live love in a time such as this?

Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient and when it’s difficult.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways according to where they are in life.
Love with no borders, walls, limits, rules, or formulas.
Love and leave resentment behind.
Love those outside your social circles.

Love consistently, no matter what is happening in the world.

Let’s go back to the discussion about perfectionism. Having perfectionist traits is actually not all bad, you know. There is such a thing as a positive perfectionist, someone who is achievement oriented and not failure oriented. Positive perfectionism, which I argue Jesus practiced, is the lifestyle of noticing that there are things wrong in the world [injustices, suffering] and that helping to make things better gives life meaning. Positive perfectionists focus on how to make a lasting impact and they rarely give up because when they encounter obstacles, they shift to problem solving and see an opportunity. Failure is not the end of the world, because failure or mistakes lead to assessment and renewed brainstorming. Planning happens and there is a renewed commitment to pursuing that positive impact.

Friends, in a time such as this, when people are distracted by hate, and confusion, and manipulation; at a time when it may feel difficult to focus on loving and working for compassion; at a time in which it can feel overwhelmingly dismal and increasingly negative—we need to focus on cultivating the part of ourselves that is beloved, worthy, and good enough to make positive change happen. This is not a time to be overly critical of ourselves or of others. This is a time to be patient and compassionate both with ourselves and others. This is a time to reach out and build bridges, a time to surround ourselves with those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world and who recognize the importance of community.

Whatever level of perfectionist you are, bear in mind that you are enough; you are capable of living love in your relationships. You are capable of making a positive impact in the world. And the more we join together—all of us trees with compassionate roots and growing branches—the more fruit we will bear.

Matthew 5:21-24; 33-37 

So many labels.

labels
We are named this, that, the other thing.

We are told what we are capable of or not capable of. And we bring all of these experiences into our relationships. We bring all of this into community.

These labels, these stereotypes—they hinder us from fully expressing ourselves and sometimes they even keep us from connecting to others. I would argue that the divisiveness we experience in the world occurs because we too readily accept the labels given to us, and too readily apply labels to other people. The divisiveness begins in each one of us, as we seek to balance how we see ourselves with how others may see us. It is not easy, for sure, but essential work we all must do. Because if we don’t know, love, and accept ourselves as we are, and if we too often accept the labels given to us, we will find it difficult to have meaningful and positive relationships. It will be more difficult to be part of a community.

This individual work I will call self-reconciling—the work of getting to know yourself apart from societal, religious, and even family labels. Discovering how to love and accept yourself as you are, raw and unfiltered. That self-reconciling, in my experience, leads to reconciliation with others, in community.

Jesus of Nazareth spoke a lot about this type of reconciliation, within ourselves, and as part of a community. His quite famous “sermon on the mount” includes such identity metaphors as salt and light, and of course, the beatitudes–the affirmation of the marginalized as part of God’s reconciling work. We are looking at the latter part of this speech in Matthew’s Gospel, and this time Jesus shifts to a conversation about the Law.

What is the law? Plainly speaking, it was and is the Mosaic Law, the precepts and rules from the Torah; in other words, the first five books of the Old Testament. For Jewish folk in Jesus’ time, the Law was of utmost importance. It defined the behaviors of individuals, and also how people related to each other in community. Jesus, in the Gospels, interprets these Laws as Rabbis were prone to do. In his interpretation, however, was an underlying theme new to many:  laws were only good insofar as they valued and protected people.

In other words, it was not about who followed the laws more religiously. It was about how people’s lives were affirmed and embraced—that people had a right to be part of a safe community in which they could be themselves.

Please keep in mind that for Jesus, the Scriptures were not ending points that were God-words and therefore a done deal. Instead, the Scriptures were more like beginning points from which to re-form them. Jesus moved away from the authority of the written words in order to truly honor the spirit of the teachings themselves.

Each time he says “but I say to you” Jesus is placing a comma where others had placed a period.

The Scriptures were not dead and set in stone. God was still speaking through them—to people in the current age, and thus they should be interpreted in that age.

Thus, Jesus runs down a list of various laws and rules that his audience would have seen as hot button issues: marriage and divorce, murder, repayment of debts, adultery, and oaths [making vows/promises]. But in each case, Jesus focuses less on the letter of the law and more on what the spirit of the law was about—affirmation and reconciliation in community. A quick breakdown of the issues at hand:

Murder. It is not enough to just say that we shouldn’t kill each other. The point is in the valuing of another. People’s lives matter. Rather than prohibiting violence against another, this law is actually about wanting the best for others, actively seeking their well-being, affirming who they are, and even taking risks to do so. No one should go to a church or worship or do anything so-called religious before reconciling with others and loving them as they are. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually committed to this? Then it wouldn’t be about how many times you attend worship or educational classes or how many committees you serve on or any of that stuff. It would be about reconciliation with others and seeking the best for our neighbors.

Marriage and divorce. So easy to get caught up in morals here, but that’s not Jesus’ take. Instead, this law is about certain individuals being mistreated, in this case, women. Females were considered property in Jesus’ time. The rules for marriage and divorce were completely one-sided in favor of males. But the spirit of the law is about the valuing of persons and thus prohibits us from objectifying them or treating them as lesser. In blessed community, we value each other fully and consider ourselves to be of equal value and therefore deserving of protection and affirmation. In 2017 the spirit of this law is absolutely relevant. Still there are far too many people [who say they are Christians] who are fighting against and in some cases blocking the affirmation of two men or two women who wish to marry; and others who refuse to recognize the beauty and full humanity of transgender people. And females still experience objectification and are considered property. This is not what beloved community stands for.

Part of the reason why “religious” folk keep hanging onto laws that denigrate and divide people, says Jesus, is due to our spending way too much time arguing about oaths.

The formal swearing of oaths in court is something familiar to all of us. But have you ever thought about how much people swear oaths in churches? You want to join a particular faith community [or even attend a Christian school] and you must swear an oath. You must swear that you believe a particular list of things, a doctrinal statement, etc. For Jesus, oath-swearing was for people who didn’t trust each other. You say pious and hollow words. It has nothing to do with how you treat people.

And yet, in beloved community, oaths are unnecessary, because people speak the truth to each other, trust each other, and love each other honestly. I encourage you [and myself] to focus less on the labels we are given and the labels we give; I challenge you to focus less on rules and more on community.

How will we as a community value and affirm others?
How will we tackle the culture in our communities that devalues some because of their gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or social status?

How will we continue to build beloved community?

 

Saltiness Leads to Light

Matthew 5:13-16curry.jpg

I’m not a big fan of bland food. If you are, no problem—no judgements. Everyone has different tastes and certainly, what you grew up eating affects your taste buds. But for me, I like strong flavors in food. I gravitate towards spicy and tangy curries and sauces, a wide variety of chili peppers, and accent flavors in herbs like cilantro.

And I cannot imagine what certain bland foods would be like without…salt.

dead-sea-salt-crystals-12Dead Sea Salt Crystal Formations

Everybody uses salt to some extent in their food. Of course, salt isn’t just to add flavor, because it also can be a preservative. Ancient cultures around the world used salt for a variety of reasons—even religious ceremonies and currency. For the sake of our conversation, though, we are not talking about your everyday table salt. We are talking about sea salt.

Sea salt comes in rock crystal form and can be used for such things as a muscle-relaxing, skin reviving warm bath, a non-corrosive cleaner, or an incredibly delicious hummus. There are more than 14,000 uses for salt. Pretty useful, wouldn’t you say?

And yet, as the story in Matthew’s Gospel assumes, salt can lose its flavor. Salt from places like the Dead Sea or any other body of water obviously can mix with sand and other things, thus making it not entirely “pure” salt [NaCl]. When mixed with water or when exposed to a lot of sunlight, this salt mix loses its saltiness. In Jesus’ day, merchants in the region of Galilee would deal with this on a regular basis, as they would encounter salt mixtures that were not usable because they were flavorless. It was trampled underfoot because, logically, people walked on the shores and therefore walked on the salt.

That’s the context for the humans being as salt metaphor.

Being salty is about having flavor, but also about being useful. What comes to my mind in this moment is that saltiness involves diversity. As a human race, we are full of flavors, full of beautiful colors, cultures, and ideas. What makes us salty isn’t that we are all the same or homogeneous. Our diversity makes us salty; our diversity makes us useful as well, because the more we encounter and cooperate with others who are different, we gain new perspectives about the world [and ourselves], we break down barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice, and we better our world. Like I said, I’m all about the flavor, baby.

And then there’s light.

lightpersion
Pretty common religious reference across the board, right? But in this case, the light reference needs some explanation. Think 1st and 2nd Century Israel and Palestine, as we know this area today. People of that time typically had just one room in their houses. When someone entered a home, they would immediately notice an oil lamp on top of a stand. When it was time to put the lamp out, the residents of the home would place a bushel basket over the lamp. Practically, that would keep the smoke and fumes in the basket and not blowing in your face. This context is important if we are to gain insight into this Jesus saying.

an-ancient-style-oil-lamp1

You see, Jesus of Nazareth, according to Matthew’s author, says that we should be like the lamp on that stand, except for one caveat—we shouldn’t put the basket on top of our light to snuff it out.

Jesus raises the stakes and says that humans should not just be a lamp, but a city, and not just on a stand, but on a hill.

We are supposed to be even brighter lights that illuminate the darkness, up on a hill where others can see.

I don’t know about you, but I want to SEE that. Who is tired of all the hateful speech, manipulation, fear tactics, and hypocrisy? I honestly do not care if you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Sikh, Jain, Baha’i, Secular Humanist, Atheist, Wiccan, Republican, Democrat, Independent, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, bland food or spicy food lover.

Why not accept our saltiness? We are all unique, and this is SO GOOD.

Why not be light? Why not be light in this world, because the world needs us to be light, yes?

I’ll do my best. Won’t you shine your light and add yours to mine?

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